So how are you going to spend this September 11? I have no plans yet myself, although I’m sure that at some point my thoughts will wander back to that ghastly day in 2001 when I climbed up to the roof of the building I was working at and watched the smoke billow into the sky and the two towers go crashing to the ground. Others will find solace in religious services and in mourning their losses in the company of friends and relatives.
But it doesn't have to be this way: A church in Florida is planning a spectacular event with deep historical roots. Yes, the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville will be marking the ninth anniversary of the September 11 tragedy with a public Koran burning. The non-denominational DWOC, which is run by Rev. Terry Jones and whose membership figures are hard to come by, enjoys a reputation throughout Florida for its in-your-face demonstrations against pornography, homosexuality, and abortion. It announced its latest provocation in late July and has been publicizing the burning on Youtube (see video below) and through its own Facebook page. The purpose of the event, we are told, is “to bring to awareness to [sic] the dangers of Islam and that the Koran is leading people to hell. Eternal fire is the only destination the Koran can lead people to so we want to put the Koran in it's [sic] place - the fire!”
Jones, the author of a book called Islam is of the Devil, has included a list of “Ten Reasons to Burn the Koran” on his church’s website. These “reasons” include 1) The Koran teaches that Jesus Christ, the Crucified, Risen Son of God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords was NOT the Son of God, nor was he crucified; 3) The Koran's teaching includes Arabian idolatry, paganism, rites and rituals; 6) Islamic Law is totalitarian in nature; 7) Islam is not compatible with democracy and human rights. The notion of a moral individual capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for them does not exist in Islam. The attitude towards women in Islam as inferior possessions of men has led to countless cases of mistreatment; and 10) Islam is a weapon of Arab imperialism and Islamic colonialism.
So what's the solution? That's where Jones and the DWOC come in. The church’s website goes on to say that “Christians are called to live and speak the truth, and to tear down the strongholds of the kingdom of darkness. Islam is of the devil and the Koran is a lie. Millions of people all over the world, Moslem and non-Moslem, are held captive by these lies. The world needs a beacon of warning and of hope.” Hence their plans for September 11, 2010, which they are now calling "International Burn a Koran Day." And they won't be burning just one Koran, but as many copies as they can get their hands on.
The DWOC sounds a lot like the equally provocative Westboro Baptist Church. But what is really behind all this? Both the DWOC and Jones himself have been the subject of a number of investigations, both in Florida and in Cologne, Germany, where Jones got his start in the preaching business back in 1981. Last summer, the Gainesville Sun ran an in-depth article looking at the church, which “is structured with a for-profit business operating out of tax-exempt church property, using the unpaid labor of church members to maintain a steady stream of merchandise for sale online. … Entwined with the church's message is a theme stressing obedience to senior pastors and work for the kingdom of God - a theme that persuaded one couple from Germany to work full time and uncompensated for Terry and Sylvia Jones' business, TS and Company. The business sells vintage furniture on eBay." Jones also runs a boarding school for teenagers called the Dove World Outreach Academy. "The academy members live on property owned by TS and Company, work in the selling, packing and shipping of furniture and are unpaid.”
And for all Jones’s concerns about the “totalitarianism” of Islam, his own Dove World Outreach Academy – whose members wear khaki uniforms at work, study, and church – sounds pretty totalitarian in its own right. According to the official rulebook, which the Gainesville Sun managed to get a hold of (you can read it here), the school's rules “include being obedient to all commands, asking for permission to talk and using only the academy e-mail account for personal correspondence. In the original rulebook, academy attendees also are banned from dining in restaurants or eating sweets and cakes, with weekly weigh-ins to achieve a weight goal. Visits from family and friends are not allowed, and occasions such as weddings, funerals or birthdays are no exception, according to the original rule book.”
While Jones's concern for Muslim women is commendable, he sure doesn't cut the women or men under his own boot much slack, as evidenced by Rule #6: "Singles are not allowed to have romantic relationships to the opposite sex. In fact it is recommended that the time is spent completely for academy matters. Except work things, there is no need to talk at all, or even flirt!"
And so it goes. As the tax inspector's noose tightens around the church’s neck, it’s not entirely clear whether the Koran burning is really an expression of genocidal yearnings or merely a giant change of subject.
The mere notion of book burning gives rise to some pretty sinister associations. Jones had decided to head these criticisms off at the pass. “Like the Christians in Acts 19,” his website writes,” we are publicly burning a book that is demonic. We are not, like the Nazis, stealing books, destroying properties or harming any people.”
What, book burning is divinely sanctioned? As a matter of fact, Acts 19, which describes St. Paul’s missionary work in Ephesus, does indeed relate how "many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted up the value of them, and it totaled fifty thousand pieces of silver.”
Now I’m not a theologian, but it seems to me that first century so-called magicians in Ephesus burning their own books voluntarily after being converted by an Apostle and twentieth-century Florida Christians burning Korans on TV, while Muslims around the world shriek in outrage and swear vengeance, aren’t the same thing at all. But what do I know?
This provocation – as narrow, primitive, and localized as it may be – is already bearing fruit abroad. Yesterday, Al-Azhar's Supreme Council in Egypt accused the DWOC of stirring up hatred and called on other American religious institutions to denounce Jones’s plan. I think we can expect global TV and radio coverage on September 11. If, with clever stage managing, mere cartoons can set the Muslim world aflame, just imagine what a flaming Koran will do. Amazingly enough, what goes around has a tendency to come around.
The problem with the book-burning as I see it (I mean to say, one of the problems), is that in Islam the Koran is not just a bundle of paper, but is in fact a living book which the devout regularly commit to memory. Thus you can’t really burn the Koran without burning the faithful as well.
My history may be a little fuzzy, but somewhere I recall reading that it was Heinrich Heine, a German Jew, who wrote in connection with the burning of the Koran by the Spanish Inquisition: “When you burn books, you always end up burning people too.” Gee, do you think maybe the old guy knew what he was talking about?